23 July 2014

Review: HOLY ORDERS, Benjamin Black

  • published by Henry Holt and Company 2013
  • ISBN 978-0-8050-9440-4
  • 286 pages
  • source: my local library
  • #6 in the Quirke series- Benjamin Black is a penname for John Banville
Synopsis (author website)

When the body of his daughter’s friend is brought to his autopsy table, Quirke is plunged into a world of corruption that takes him to the darkest corners of the Irish Church and State.

“At first they thought it was the body of a child. Later, when they got it out of the water and saw the pubic hair and the nicotine stains on the fingers, they realized their mistake.”

So begins the latest Quirke case, a story set in Dublin at a moment when newspapers are censored, social conventions are strictly defined, and appalling crimes are hushed up. Why? Because in 1950s Ireland the Catholic Church controls the lives of nearly everyone. But when Quirke’s daughter Phoebe loses her close friend Jimmy Minor to murder, Quirke can no longer play by the Church’s rules. Along with Inspector Hackett, his sometime partner, Quirke investigates Jimmy’s death and learns just how far the Church and its supporters will go to protect their own interests.

Haunting, fierce, and brilliantly plotted, this is Benjamin Black writing at the top of his form. His inimitable creation, the endlessly curious Quirke, brings a pathologist’s unique understanding of death to unlock the most dangerous of secrets.

My Take

I can't believe that this is the first Benjamin Black title that I have read. I do remember the debut novel CHRISTINE FALLS being published and the speculation that Benjamin Black was somebody who had already made his name in another genre. (Among others things the Man Booker Prize for 2005).

HOLY ORDERS taps into what has become an international theme of the Catholic Church abusing the children supposedly under its care. It is something Quirke is familiar with having had an institutional upbringing himself. Mixed in with this theme is Quirke's own failure with regard to his relationship with his daughter.

It makes good reading.

My rating: 4.8

21 July 2014

Review: MURDER IN THE MONASTERY, Lesley Cookman

  • published in 2013 by Accent Press
  • ISBN 9-781908-917751
  • 309 pages
  • source: my local library
  • #11 in Libby Sarjeant Mysteries series
Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

The eleventh book in the Libby Sarjeant series of British murder mysteries which features a retired actress as the female sleuth and are based in the picturesque village of Steeple Martin.

Libby Sarjeant is invited to look into the provenance of a jewelled Anglo-Saxon reliquary which has appeared on a website.

The nuns at St Eldreda's Abbey are curious, as it apparently contains a relic of St Eldreda herself. Libby's friend Peter obtains permission to mount a play based on St Eldreda's story in the ruins of the original monastery called, naturally, Murder In The Monastery.

 And then, inevitably, a real body is discovered, and Libby and her friend Fran find out that this is not the first.

My Take

Helpfully at the beginning of this novel there is a Who's Who in the Libby Sarjeant series. I did end up using it a few times to get relationships between people sorted out. There are a number of occasional references to events that Libby and her friends have been involved in in previous titles.

I think I may need to add the village of Steeple Martin to my list of places not to visit, although the village itself sounds pretty interesting. (If you remember others include St. Mary Mead, and anything including the word Midsommer.)

The action of the novel centres around a quickly written play about the life of St. Eldreda to be accompanied by the display of a reliquary which contains her finger bone. Of course we are expecting a murder because of the title of the novel, but the identity of the victim comes as a surprise to all. Libby engages a researcher to trace the descendants of the family whom the reliquary has belonged to over the centuries. The results of this research provides a lot of surprises.

This is a real cozy, lots of characters to sort out, and red herrings do abound. Libby has a good working relationship with a local police DCI because she has been involved in a number of earlier cases. There is probably a good argument for getting into this series at the very beginning, so you have the build up of character information that will result from that.

My rating: 4.2

19 July 2014

Review: ELIZABETH IS MISSING, Emma Healey

  • published 2014 by Viking, Penguin Books
  • ISBN 978-0-241-00351-0
  • 275 pages
Synopsis (Penguin Australia)

What if you could remember just one thing?

Maud is forgetful.  She makes a cup of tea and doesn't remember to drink it.  She goes to the shops and forgets why she went.  Back home she finds the place horribly unrecognizable - just like she sometimes thinks her daughter Helen is a total stranger.

But there's one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing.  The note in her pocket tells her so.  And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it.

Because somewhere in Maud's damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery.  One everyone has forgotten about.

Everyone, except Maud . . .

My Take

Maud organises her life with little bits of paper. She writes notes but doesn't always discard the paper when she should. She know Elizabeth is missing because the note says so, and because Elizabeth's house is empty. But she can't understand why no-one will do anything about Elizabeth's disappearance - not the police whom she visits several times, not her daughter, not her doctor.

Events in the present trigger vivid memories from the past, when she was a teenager and someone else close to her also disappeared.The war was recently over, they had a lodger, and a mad woman was killed by a car right outside their house.

Emma Healey does a wonderful job of of presenting Maud's fractured memories.
An excellent read.

My rating: 4.7

About the author
Emma Healey is 28 years old and grew up in London. She has spent most of her working life in libraries, bookshops and galleries. She completed the MA in Creative Writing: Prose at UEA in 2011. Elizabeth is Missing is her first novel.

Check her website.

18 July 2014

Review: STRANGE SHORES, Arnaldur Indridason

  • first published in Icelandic in 2010
  • translated in English by Victoria Cribb 2013
  • ISBN 978-1-846-55711-8
  • 296 pages
  • #9 in the Erlendur series
Synopsis (Random House)

A young woman walks into the frozen fjords of Iceland, never to be seen again. But Matthildur leaves in her wake rumours of lies, betrayal and revenge.

Decades later, somewhere in the same wilderness, Detective Erlendur is on the hunt. He is looking for Matthildur but also for a long-lost brother, whose disappearance in a snow-storm when they were children has coloured his entire life. He is looking for answers.

Slowly, the past begins to surrender its secrets. But as Erlendur uncovers a story about the limits of human endurance, he realises that many people would prefer their crimes to stay buried.

My Take

I remember well reading the first novel by this author, JAR CITY (aka TAINTED BLOOD), first published in English in 2004, and I've been a follower ever since.

Some reviewers are saying this is his best ever. I'm not sure I would go that far, but it is certainly memorable. Detective Elendur has been haunted all of his life by the loss of his 8 year old brother in a snow storm, when he himself was only twelve, and by the impression that he was somehow at fault. Beggi's body was never found despite an extensive search. At times Erlendur relives that time when he was waiting in the cold snow for someone to find him, and he realised that he was no longer holding Beggi's hand.

The story of the disappearance of Matthildur during a similar snow storm is one that Erlendur seems to have known all of his life. He is on holidays in the area that he grew up in, and takes the opportunity to try to find out what people remember about Matthildur's disappearance. At the time some people didn't voice their suspicions and there were some who knew the truth.

Although this is not an official police investigation Erlendur puts a lot of energy into it and eventually solves the puzzle. But can justice be done?

This is an excellent read. Indridason leads the reader through layers of investigation, so that eventually we understand for ourselves what happened to Matthildur, and Elendur is able to come to terms with his role in Beggi's disappearance.

My rating: 4.6

Elendur has actually been missing from the most recent novels in the series: BLACK SKIES and  OUTRAGE, and it seems that STRANGE SHORES will actually be his final appearance - apart from the fact that REYKJAVIK NIGHTS published in 2014 is actually a prequel to the series. The first two novels in the series published in 1997 and 1998 have never been translated into English. There also appears to another novel in the Erlendur series, published in Icelandic in 2011, Einvígið, that has never made it into English.

I've also reviewed
ARCTIC CHILL
5.0, HYPOTHERMIA
4.5, OPERATION NAPOLEON
4.6, OUTRAGE
4.9, BLACK SKIES

17 July 2014

In which I claim Bingo in the Golden Vintage Mystery Challenge 2014

I'm pleased to have completed my first bingo line on the 2014 Mystery Bingo Score Card hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block.
I am keeping my full records here.

I have no doubt I will be able to add a few more spots to the bingo card by the end of 2014.

My observations so far:
  • I have read a number of authors for the first time
  • I don't feel that I have enjoyed these books as much as I do modern crime fiction. I certainly haven't given them as high a rating.
  • While they are generally  not as long as a recently published novel, many of the plots have been quite complex and make liberal uses of devices like red herrings.
Golden Vintage - books written before 1960


6 books to be read - but need to be lined up for Bingo
  1. THE LATE MONSIEUR GALLET, Georges Simenon, published 1931 - one translated work
  2. THE NURSING HOME MURDER, Ngaio Marsh, published 1937 - One Medical Mystery
  3. MURDER IN THE MEWS, Agatha Christie, published 1937 - a short story collection
  4. DEATH OF A SWAGMAN, Arthur Upfield, published 1945 -  a man in the title
  5. THE INSPECTOR BARLACH MYSTERIES, Friedrich Durrenmatt, published 1950/1 - with a professional detective
  6. 4.5, GIDEON'S MONTH, J.J. Marric published 1958 - with a Time, Day, Month etc in the title
  7. 4.1, GREY MASK, Patricia Wentworth - published 1928 - with a Color in the title
  8. 4.0, DEATH-WATCH, John Dickson-Carr - published 1935 - by an Author You've never read before
  9. 3.9, THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE, Mary Roberts Rinehart - published 1907 - a book set in the U.S.
  10. 3.7, THE FOOTPRINTS ON THE CEILING, Clayton Rawson - published 1939 - a locked room mystery

16 July 2014

Review: THE FOOTPRINTS ON THE CEILING, Clayton Rawson

  • first published 1939
  • locked room mystery
  • format: Kindle (Amazon)
  • File Size: 542 KB
  • Print Length: 243 pages
  • Publisher: MysteriousPress.com/Open Road (May 22, 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B007ZI09CO
Synopsis (Amazon)

Wanted To Rent: Haunted House, preferably in rundown condition. Must be adequately supplied with interesting ghost.”

Ross Harte knows that only the Great Merlini could be behind such a strange classified ad. A magician, salesman, and occasional sleuth, Merlini is producing radio investigations of paranormal activity, and he needs ghosts to put on-air. His first target is Skelton Island, an eerie speck of land just a few hundred feet off the coast of Manhattan, but seemingly out of another time.

On a late-night trip to the island, Merlini and Harte find the house perfectly rundown and well-stocked with ghosts, including one fresh one. Linda Skelton, granddaughter of the famous Scourge of Wall Street, has been poisoned with cyanide. Unless Merlini works quickly, he and Ross will join her among the ranks of Skelton Island’s famous spirits.
My Take
 
This novel has a huge cast of characters and a hideously complex and very tangled plot. I chose it because the review I read said it was a locked room mystery and I needed one to complete a "bingo" line in the 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge.

The story is mainly told through the eyes of Ross Harte, the Great Merlini's friend, and mostly the author plays "fair" with the reader. There are times though when the police detective, Gavigan, or even Merlini himself, or another character playing sleuth goes off on a tangent which Harte is excluded from. At times the solution to a knotty problem is something the reader could not be expected to know: such as how to produce footprints on a ceiling, the characteristics of death by "the bends", or the nature of a disease that produces blue pigmentation in the skin. These are pieces of antiquarianism provided to tickle the reader's fancy.

As I've come to expect from crime novels of The Golden Age, red herrings, which Merlini calls "misdirections", abound. Just when you think you've got it all worked out Merlini puts another spanner in the works and you see that your solution has many holes in it. People are not who they appear to be either - almost as if the author is looking for another way to confound his own logic and to prolong the pages a bit more. By the end though I was getting a bit tired of these extensions and just wanted to know the "proper" solution.

This is my third "vintage" crime novel in a row and I think I'll be glad to get back to a more modern author.

My rating: 3.7

About the author (Wikipedia)

Born in Ohio, 1906-1971, an American mystery writer, editor, and amateur magician. His four novels frequently invoke his great knowledge of stage magic and feature as their fictional detective The Great Merlini, a professional magician who runs a shop selling magic supplies. He also wrote four short stories in 1940 about a stage magician named Don Diavolo, who appears as a principal character in one of the novels featuring The Great Merlini. "Don Diavolo is a magician who perfects his tricks in a Greenwich Village basement where he is frequently visited by the harried Inspector Church of Homicide, either to arrest the Don for an impossible crime or to ask him to solve it."

11 July 2014

Review: THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE, Mary Roberts Rinehart

  • format: Kindle (Amazon)
  • File Size: 627 KB
  • Print Length: 226 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1489526706
  • Publisher: first published 1907, this edition Start Classics (April 25, 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00K0UAR3U
  • source: I bought it
Synopsis (Amazon)

The following are the opening paragraphs of the novel.

This is the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, deserted her domestic gods in the city, took a furnished house for the summer out of town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous.

 For twenty years I had been perfectly comfortable; for twenty years I had had the window-boxes filled in the spring, the carpets lifted, the awnings put up and the furniture covered with brown linen; for as many summers I had said good-bye to my friends, and, after watching their perspiring hegira, had settled down to a delicious quiet in town, where the mail comes three times a day, and the water supply does not depend on a tank on the roof.

And then -- the madness seized me. When I look back over the months I spent at Sunnyside, I wonder that I survived at all. As it is, I show the wear and tear of my harrowing experiences. I have turned very gray -- Liddy reminded me of it, only yesterday, by saying that a little bluing in the rinse-water would make my hair silvery, instead of a yellowish white. I hate to be reminded of unpleasant things and I snapped her off. "No," I said sharply, "I'm not going to use bluing at my time of life, or starch, either."

My Take

I think I may have bought this quite cheaply, seeing an opportunity to do a bit of "vintage" reading. It has been on my kindle for a few months only.

At the beginning of this e-book version of THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE there is a biographical introduction to the life and works of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Here is an extract:
    This book is credited with having been the first mystery to use the "Had I But Known" formula. This style of mystery centers around the protagonist withholding important details until it is too late. Often this variety of tale is narrated as a flashback from the protagonist's point of view. They will withhold the special damning piece of information from the reader as well, only revealing it after the climactic moment involving the secret clue. When done well, the technique can create real suspense for the reader.
I found myself remembering the phrase "Had I But Known " because once you know this was a feature of Rinehart's style, then it is certainly there.

There is an almost Gothic quality to the plot lines and setting of THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE. The story is narrated by Rachel Innes, who doesn't always understand the implications of what she has observed. There are two deaths, ghostly rappings emanating from the walls and ceilings, and as the novel progresses the plot strands get increasingly complex, as if the characters have got away from the author. In fact one part of the plot resolution gives the impression of having been plucked from the air. The central plot appears to relate to the stock market crash of 1903.

My rating: 3.9

About the author

Mary Roberts Rinehart 1876-1958 was a writer of detective stories and mysteries who was billed as the American Agatha Christie. She wrote over sixty popular mysteries and is credited with the creation of the "Had I But Known" school of mystery writing. She is also credited as the source of the phrase "The butler did it," though she never actually used it in her writing.

Her first novel, The Man in the Lower Ten (1906) and then in 1907, The Circular Staircase, are the earliest American novels that are still in print today as forms of entertainment rather than as "classic" works of literature. The Circular Staircase brought Rinehart national fame and prosperity. The book sold over a million copies and allowed the Rineharts more financial breathing room.

More details on Wikipedia

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